Innovative projects, innovative funding: a reflection

Last week, we had our final project team meeting for our Erasmus + funded project on Third Space. As part of this, we discussed some very interesting points around funding. I’d like to share some of these here alongside my own thinking.

Instead of outputs and results: processes and outcomes…

We noted the issue around many funding programmes requiring a detailed project plan at the application stage, with clear outputs and expected results. While this may work for some cultural and educational projects, for those projects seeking to be more co-creative and sharing power with participants this makes little sense. Such a project is inherently based on the idea of change. The irony is that more and more (public) funders do require participation by the people whom a project is to benefit, and rightly so. In a next step, they also need to change their application forms, away from outputs and results towards descriptions of processes and (broad) outcomes for participants.

…as well as organisational learning and change

Along the same lines, I would argue that funders also need to acknowledge the value of organisational learning and, even more importantly, organisational change due to a project. This is not something that can necessarily be quantified and measured, and I am certainly not suggesting that we create indicators that are potentially as unrealistic as they are shallow [1]. Instead, a detailed process of self-reflection throughout the project and upon its completion should be valued as an equal part in a funding application. Even if an organisation learns that something did not work, this is important for its growth. And considering that we often lament the lack of sustainability of a project’s impact once it has ended, such learning should be a key factor in a successful funding application. This is particularly true with an approach like co-creation, which is so fundamentally different to how organisations were traditionally set up to work. Without gaining experience first and implementing organisational change accordingly, people-centred cultural and educational work run the danger of remaining narrowly confined to lauded one-off projects. That would be a shame [2].

Away with measurable units

This concerns particularly core funding but to some extent project funding also: the units for which funding is awarded. In the adult education sector, everything tends to be measured in teaching units, i.e. hours spent actually teaching, generally coupled with a minimum number of participants. This becomes an issue the moment you move away from a classic classroom setting and toward a co-creative format that may be much more fluid. Of course we can – and do – guess a rough number of full teaching units for projects of this kind. However, that is applying an old assessment to a ‘new’ method. Once you also apply the criteria of minimum participant numbers, many of these teaching units no longer get funded, even if this may be due to the natural fluctuations in a more open learning environment. In turn, this means that organisations take a financial risk in providing such programmes. The irony is of course that the general estimate is that learner-centred learning is where the future lies. Instead of encouraging serious providers to change their approach and their structures accordingly, current funding frameworks keep pushing us back into old formats. We need to enter into an exchange about measurements that allow funders to evaluate and compare impact while at the same time enabling flexibility.

Transparency and equal opportunity

In our project team, we also talked a great deal about what requirements an organisation should fulfill in order to be eligible for funding. Rather than track record we felt that transferrable experience and commitment should be paramount. This would give equal opportunity to newcomers who may not have applied to funding before and may never have delivered a similar project either. After all, it is often these newbies who have the most innovative ideas.

At the same time, and this was a particular issue with the Erasmus + funding process, there needs to be transparency on funding requirements. In our particular case, the German National Agency would not recognize my organisation’s financial viability, on the basis of asking for processes and assets that an association of our legal status – what is called an eigenständiger Verein in German – is neither required to follow nor allowed to have. In effect, that means that there are different rules for an organisation like ours, although the agency denied this. I still have not received an answer as to why this decision on viability was made, which delayed our project start and required us and our partners to pre-fund some of our project activities. What is left is a sense of a lack of transparency and very real discouragement to set up a follow-up project – even though we have plenty of ideas.


[1] Since I am mostly writing of co-creative programmes, one such seductive indicator might be the number of project staff/participants belonging to minorities. Not because I think this isn’t important, but rather because without deep and meaningful organisational change, which is unlikely to sustainably be effected through just one project, these indicators will either falsely show failure or mask the lack of real change.

[2] I want to acknowledge here the really fantastic funding programmes that we benefited from: Weiterkommen!, by the Zentrum für Kulturelle Teilhabe Baden-Württemberg, and Neustart Kultur by the Fonds Soziokultur. Both have placed the emphasis on learning processes, and the Zentrum für Kulturelle Teilhabe Baden-Württemberg had no qualms whatsoever to accept a more or less complete change to our project outputs after an initial planning process that diverged rather fruitfully from our original plan as set out in the application. This is innovative funding that makes an impact. Great!


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